Top Places To Birdwatch in Minnesota – Free & Paid Birding Destinations

December 11, 2021 // 23 minute read

Birding Locations » US » Minnesota Birdwatching

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Birders in Minnesota have plenty to love in this wonderful place that has temperatures that swing from one extreme to the other. The Land of 10,000 Lakes is truly a great place to live because there are so many beautiful natural bird habitats, national wildlife refuges, national parks, and other attractive locations to see your favorite birds in their normal habitat.

The lush land in Minnesota is filled with part of the Mississippi Flyway, which is rife with so many beautiful places for birds to congregate. The land is also made up of prairies, conifer and hardwood forests, wetlands, and more, which make this the perfect birding destination no matter what season of the year it happens to be.

Do you live in Minnesota? Or do you plan to visit in the near future and would like to take advantage of some of the exciting birding experiences here? I’ll tell you about the best free and paid birdwatching hotspots in the North Star state, so you’ll always have a phenomenal place to visit to experience birdwatching like never before.

And for local Minnesotans, I’ll share information about a few of the top birdwatching clubs and National Audubon Society chapters as well. Feel free to join these groups to become more involved with bird education, conservation, preservation, and meet like-minded people for field trips, bird walks, and more.

In addition to the wonderful resources for Minnesota, we also have valuable birding destination articles on the wonderful states neighboring the Land of 10,000 Lakes state. They include North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa, and Wisconsin

Birdwatching Destinations in Minnesota: Free Destinations

For those looking to spend an inexpensive day birdwatching in Minnesota, you’ll definitely be interested in learning about the top free birdwatching destinations in the Gopher state. This hobby or pastime doesn’t need to be so expensive that it breaks the bank. You need a pair of good binoculars, some gas money to fill up your car, and occasionally you’ll need to pay a parking fee to gain access to a particular hotspot.

Ready to learn the truth about birding in Minnesota? Keep reading to discover the best free birdwatching destinations throughout the state of Minnesota.

Hawk Ridge Nature Reserve – No Charge, Donations & Membership Optional

This exciting nature reserve is managed by the Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory, a nonprofit organization located in Duluth, Minnesota. The original land was purchased in 1972 through donations provided by the Duluth Audubon Society and their fundraising efforts. The Minnesota chapter of nature Conservancy also provided a loan to make it possible to purchase 115 acres at the highest point of the ridge. They acquired another 250 acres a year later using funds provided by St. Louis County.

There’s plenty to do at Hawk Ridge including birdwatching, hiking, and other fun filled activities. Visit this gorgeous place in the future to observe lots of wildlife and interesting birds. If you bring your dog, you must clean up after your pet and keep it on a leash.

Location:

E Skyline Parkway
Duluth, MN 55804

Phone: 218-428-8722

GPS: 46.8534° N, 92.0310° W

Hours Of Operation:

According to their website, Hawk Ridge Nature Reserve is open to the public every day from 9 AM to 4 PM, seven days a week. You should call to find out their opening and closing times on national holidays like the upcoming Columbus Day to find out if their hours might be affected.

  • Rough Legged Hawk
  • Golden Eagle
  • Great Gray Owl
  • Connecticut Warbler
  • Greater Prairie-Chicken
  • Mississippi Kite
  • Peregrine Falcon
  • Northern Goshawk
  • American Kestrel
  • Broad-Winged Hawk
  • Northern Harrier
  • Turkey Vulture

Hiking Trails:

Along Hawk Ridge and the surrounding area in Duluth, MN, there are a number of amazing hiking trails to experience firsthand. I’d like to tell you about my top 5 favorites in the area and I’ll share a mix of easy to moderate trails based on their degree of difficulty.

The names of these trails and other valuable information include:

  • Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory Loop – the best part about this trail is that it’s easy to navigate and the path is relatively clear as you walk through a gorgeous forested area in a looping fashion. They keep this trail well-maintained, which is nice for hikers and birdwatchers because they’ll never have to worry about losing their way. Besides the easy degree of difficulty, the trail is relatively long since it’s 4.6 miles from the beginning of the loop to the end. This should take the average person walking at a moderate pace roughly 2 hours and five minutes to complete.
  • Lake Superior Trail from Twin Ponds – this hiking trail in the heart of Duluth is also a beautiful trail it’s easy to navigate. The path is very clear and well-maintained and you’ll even walk across a part of a bridge and boardwalk for a portion of the trail. The total length is 3.7 miles long, which the average person should have no trouble completing in one hour and 50 minutes.
  • Mission Creek Park St. Louis River Trail – this trail is definitely more difficult than the others because it’s moderately complicated, it takes you along the St. Louis River, and there are definitely certain obstacles that will cross your path like rocky terrain, hilly areas, and the like. It’s 3.6 miles long, which the average person walking at a moderate pace can complete in an hour and 40 minutes.
  • Superior Hiking Trail: Becks Road to Fond Du Lac – this trail also rates moderately difficult on a scale of easy, moderate, and hard. It’s also the second longest trail that I’ve shared with you today coming in at 5.1 miles long. The terrain gets rough and has twists and turns along the way that add a little bit of a complication to the mix, but nothing too difficult. On average, a fully noble person should complete this superior hiking trail in two hours and 25 minutes from start to finish.
  • St. Louis River Bike Path for starters, even though it isn’t mentioned in the name, this is actually a looping trail that begins and ends at the same location. It’s also a relatively easy trail since it is a well-maintained bike path that hikers and walkers can also travel along as well. Just be careful because there will be people riding bicycles on this path from time to time. It’s 5.6 miles long, which makes this the longest trail out of the group. If you decide to walk the entirety of this trail, you can complete it in two and a half hours.

Sax-Zim Bog – Free Admission, Donations Welcome

This area is located in the forest and it’s a wild wetland and it’s truly considered one of the most legendary birding locations in the entire country, and it’s likely the hottest birding spot in the state of Minnesota. It’s near Duluth, but about 35 miles north, and it contains private and public land, some trails, and lots of great birding that takes place right on the roadside.

Location:

8793 Owl Ave.
Meadowlands, MN 55765

Phone: 218-209-2262

Mailing Address:
Friends of Sax-Zim Bog
PO Box 3585
Duluth, MN 55830

GPS: 47.2224° N, 92.7050° W

Hours Of Operation:

The bog is open from dusk until dawn every day of the week. It’s even open on national holidays, but it’s always wise to check with them first on a holiday because the hours might change.

  • Black-Backed Woodpecker
  • White-Winged Crossbill
  • Common Redpoll
  • Saw-Whet Owl
  • Pine Grosbeak
  • Yellow-Bellied Flycatcher
  • Sharp-Tailed Grouse
  • Sandhill Crane
  • American Woodcock
  • Upland Sandpiper
  • Snow Bunting
  • Northern Shrike

Hiking Trails:

You may not realize this, but Sax-Zim Bog is actually made up of 524 acres of land, and it actually consists of a bunch of different bogs that are known as bog buddies. On these lands that are owned and managed by the Friends of Sax-Zim Bog, there are a number of different boardwalks and hiking trails for everyone to enjoy.

Some information that you’ll find useful includes:

  • Augie’s Bogwalk – this boardwalk trail is located within the Fringed Gentian Bog and it’s a beautiful boardwalk path that goes in a 0.28-mile loop. It’s a great place to walk along if you’re looking to view the birdfeeders, or if you plan on hiking in nature or you decide to take pictures. This boardwalk path is open during all seasons and it’s considered moderately difficult because the terrain isn’t perfectly flat even though it’s a wooden boardwalk there are ups and downs along the path.
  • Yellow-Bellied Bog Trail – this hiking trail is 0.37 miles long and it’s considered easy-moderately difficult. You may run into some difficult terrain during the winters and it would be best to wear your snowshoes because you’ll certainly have to walk through a lot of snow as you travel along the path. This area is filled with a unique mix of Owls, the Yellow-Bellied Flycatcher, and other great birds like the Canada Jay, Ruby-crowned Kinglets, and more. This trail is perfect for birding, snowshoeing, photography, hiking, and more.
  • Welcome Center Trail – this trail, otherwise known as Gray Jay Way, is nearly a mile long and it’s considered to be an easy level of difficulty. You can use this trail during all seasons, and it’s about a mile south of Owl Avenue, which is the address of Sax-Zim Bog. Along your travels, you’ll run across many beautiful birds and other wildlife as well as many amazing plants, trees, and so much more.

Agassiz National Wildlife Refuge – Free Admission, No Park Pass Required

Be Prepared for a wonderful birding experience during the spring through fall months at this Northeast Minnesota refuge. It’s located right near Thief River Falls and it’s considered an important bird area by the national Audubon Society.

Besides that, the area encompassed 61,500 acres of protected habitat land including Aspen woods, marshes, large impoundment pools, oak savanna forests, and prairies. There is even 2300 acres of coniferous bog land. You’ll see plenty of moose and wolves roaming around here, although there are much fewer moose in the area in recent years due to a declining population.

Location:

22996 290th St. NE.
Middle River, MN 56737

Phone: 218-449-4115

GPS: 48.34996°N 95.95029°W

Hours Of Operation:

The wildlife refuge itself is open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, and it’s even open on holidays. For birdwatching, you should focus your visits between dusk and dawn to take advantage of the daylight hours.

Office hours are as follows:

  • Monday through Friday – 7:30 AM to 4 PM
  • Office remains close on federal holidays
  • Northern Harrier
  • Le Conte’s Sparrow
  • Yellow-Bellied Flycatcher
  • Sedge Wren
  • Black Tern
  • Franklin’s Gull
  • Connecticut Warbler
  • Least Bittern
  • Yellow-Headed Blackbird
  • Nelson’s Sparrow
  • Bobolink
  • Short-Eared Owl

Hiking Trails:

Unfortunately, I’m having a difficult time finding the names of the existing hiking trails located at Agassiz National Wildlife Refuge, but they definitely exist and you can find out minimal information about them under the heading Wildlife Viewing on this page.

I’d also like to tell you more of the little bit of information that I discovered. At this time, there are three hiking trails in an auto tour route as well. You can either experience wildlife viewing and birdwatching from the comfort of your motor vehicle, or if you prefer, you can get out and enjoy the fresh air and spend time hiking on these three amazing trails in this refuge facility.

While here, there are more than 300 species of birds currently documented in the area, so you’ll definitely see some beautifully stunning avian creatures. There are also 49 mammals, 12 amphibian species, and nine documented reptiles recorded at this refuge.

In my opinion, it’s definitely worth it to take the time to get out of your car, take a beautiful walk along one of the hiking trails, and really take a moment to get in touch with nature. You’ll appreciate the experience and feel much more in tune with nature because of it.

Lost River State Forest – Free Admission, Camping Fees 

Located right at the border of Manitoba, Canada, you’ll appreciate Lost River State Forest because it’s definitely known as one of the top birdwatching locations in the state of Minnesota.

The winters are harsh in this part of the state, so it’s recommended that you focus your birdwatching during the late spring, through the summer, and into the fall. If you are brave enough, you could definitely withstand the brutal winter weather to see beautiful birds like Snow Bunting, Northern Shrike, and the Northern Hawk-Owl.

Overnight camping is permitted, but you are required to pay for the privilege. You can find out more about their camping fees by visiting this page.

Location:

Roseau County, Minnesota
Minnesota Department of Natural Resources

Phone: 651-296-6157

Toll-Free: 888-646-6367

Email: [email protected]

GPS: 48.9833° N, 95.6500° W

Hours Of Operation:

Unless you decide to pay the fee to camp overnight, all visitors must follow the day-use area rules. In this particular case, the forest is open to the public from 6 AM to 10 PM each day. As you can imagine, the forest is open to the public seven days a week and it’s even open on holidays.

  • Connecticut Warbler
  • Gray Jay
  • Spruce Grouse
  • Great Gray Owl
  • Marsh Wren
  • Yellow Rail
  • American Bittern
  • Black Tern
  • Yellow-Bellied Flycatcher
  • Boreal Chickadee
  • Mourning Warbler
  • Sandhill Crane

Hiking Trails:

Hiking is definitely possible in Lost River State Forest, although there isn’t a huge list of hiking trails to travel upon within this forest. Nonetheless, there is definitely plenty of forest to walk through, but there aren’t too many clearly defined paths. As a matter of fact, there is only one path that I can tell you about, so I’ll share the important details below:

  • Lost River State Forest Bird Trail – also known as Pine to Prairie Birding Trail, this trail stretches for over 200 miles, so you’ll obviously choose to walk along a small portion of the trail before turning around to go back home. The trail begins in Fergus Falls in the self and ends in Warroad in the North. On the path, there are 51 bird viewing sites that extend all the way into Manitoba, Canada. In Canada, there are an additional 23 more bird viewing sites, so remember to bring your passport!

Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge – Free Admission, No Need for a Park Pass

Do you live near or plan to visit the twin cities in the near future? You might not realize it, but there are some wonderful opportunities for birdwatching in the area, and this is in part due to the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge, which is just outside of Minneapolis.

They have two visitor centers – one is located in Bloomington and the other is in Carver – that you can stop by to learn more about the abundant waterfowl and migrating birds that regularly visit the area. Or if you prefer, just go out into the refuge and see what you discover with family members, friends, coworkers, or your local birdwatching group and remember to have fun!

Location:

Bloomington Education and Visitor Center (Refuge Headquarters)

3815 American Blvd. E.
Bloomington, MN 55425

Phone: 952-854-5900
Toll-Free: 800-877-8339

Email: [email protected]

Rapid Lakes Education Center
15865 Rapid Lakes Rd.
Carver, MN 55315

Phone: 952-361-4500
Toll-Free: 800-877-8339

GPS: 44.8600° N, 93.2164° W

Hours Of Operation:

The trails and grounds of the Minnesota Valley NWR are open every day from sunrise to sunset.

Bloomington Visitor Center Hours:

  • Open during the summer on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday from 12 PM to 4 PM.
  • The visitor center is closed on all federal holidays.

Rapids Lake Visitor Center Hours:

  • Open during the summer on Friday and Saturday from 12 PM to 4 PM.
  • The visitor center is closed on all federal holidays.
  • Blue-Winged Warbler
  • Henslow’s Sparrow
  • Peregrine Falcon
  • Virginia Rail
  • American Redstart
  • Baltimore Oriole
  • Cedar Waxwing
  • Bald Eagle
  • Trumpeter Swan
  • Hooded Merganser
  • Clay -colored Sparrow
  • Willow Flycatcher

Hiking Trails:

I’m happy to let you know that the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge has a number of great trails for you to enjoy and appreciate. In fact, there are 8 trails in total that vary in length and the time that it will take to get from the beginning of the trail to the end of it.

To learn more about these fabulous hiking trails, please keep reading to learn the pertinent details below. They include the following:

  • Mazomani Trail: Short Loop – the total length of the trail is 2.1 miles, it has an easy difficulty level, and it takes 55 minutes to complete
  • Black Dog Lake Trail – the total length of the trail is 3.8 miles, it has an easy difficulty level, and it takes an hour and 35 minutes to complete
  • Old Cedar Avenue Bridge, Long Meadow Lake and Bluff Trail – the total length of the trail is 7 miles, it has a moderate difficulty level, and it takes three hours to complete
  • Bass pond and Old Cedar Bridge Trail – the total length of the trail is 2.5 miles, it has an easy difficulty level, and it takes one hour and five minutes to complete
  • Minnesota River Trail – the total length of the trail is 6.5 miles, it has an easy difficulty level, and it takes two hours and 40 minutes to complete
  • Louisville Swamp Trail – the total length of the trail is 2.4 miles, it has an easy difficulty level, and it takes one hour and five minutes to complete
  • Mazomani Trail – the total distance of the trail is 5.5 miles, it has a moderate difficulty level, and it takes two hours and 25 minutes to complete
  • Wilkie Trail – the total length of the trail is 5 miles, it has an easy difficulty level, and it takes two hours and five minutes to complete

Birdwatching Destinations in Minnesota: Free Destinations

Minnesota Birding Weeks & Weekends

This group makes it possible for Minnesotans and visitors to enjoy a fun-filled week or weekend participating in one or more inexpensive birdwatching trips in the Land of 10,000 Lakes. 

The beauty of this opportunity is that the group provides unique birding experiences and each one of their day trips are moderately priced at $20 per day.

This group originally was founded in 1986, and at the time of this writing, they’ve had more than 9500 people register for their weekend trips and they’ve had 420 successful weekend trips and they’ve seen 366 different bird species throughout the state of Minnesota.

They began offering week trips in 1988. They’ve had 120 successful weeklong trips since this time, and they’ve amazingly discovered 718 different bird species in the last 30+ years. And like their weekend trips, their weekday trips are also moderately priced.

Contact Info:

Minnesota Birding Weeks & Weekends
1921 West Kent Rd.
Duluth, MN 55812

Phone: 218-349-5953 (Kim R. Eckert cell phone)

Email: [email protected]

Feel free to visit their website to learn more about their various tours. You can discover the MBWEEKENDS upcoming birdwatching trips here and find out more about the MBWEEKS trips in Minnesota by visiting here.

Minnesota Birdwatching Clubs

As someone living in Minnesota, you may find it rewarding to join one of the National Audubon Society chapters in your area. Or better yet, you may decide to join a local birdwatching club, and if you have a difficult time finding one like I did, you may decide to start one yourself.

The great thing about joining one of these groups is that you have the opportunity to become a member of the community. You get to meet regularly with like-minded people who enjoy birdwatching in birding and all things bird related. You’ll have a lot in common with these people and you’ll get to share delightful experiences with them when you go birdwatching together, meet for regular monthly meetings, and take bird related field trips as a group.

Feel free to join as many National Audubon Society chapters and birdwatching clubs that you feel comfortable getting involved with in the Gopher State. You’ll be glad that you decided to take your hobby to the next level by getting involved with birding in the environment at a deeper level.

Audubon Minnesota

This chapter of the National Audubon Society has a very strong belief that I’d like to share with you right now. Their belief is simple and it goes something like this – they feel that what is good for birds is also good for people as well.

What does this mean? It means providing birds with clean air, clean water, and healthy habitats. And as you can imagine, this is definitely good for everyone on the planet including the birds, so creating programs that support advocacy, education, and science is exactly what this group did. And you can become a member and support these exciting programs as well.

Contact Info:

Audubon Minnesota
2355 Highway 36 W., Suite 400
Roseville, MN 55113

Email: [email protected]

Past and Future Events:

  • Audubon’s Christmas Bird Count – the national Audubon Society is holding its Christmas Bird Count for the 122nd time and this year it’s happening between Tuesday, December 14, 2021 through Wednesday, January 5, 2022. You can join a group of like-minded people and become a community scientist in your area while providing a very helpful service at the same time. Click here to join the Christmas Bird Count.
  • Great Backyard Bird Count – this wonderful event is happening from February 18-21 in 2022 next year. There are going to be many locations throughout Minnesota that you can visit to watch birds and participate in the Great Backyard Bird Count next year. To find out more about how you and your friends and family can participate, please visit this page to learn more.

Membership Fees:

Joining the National Audubon Society is quite easy. They have certain monthly or yearly donation levels that the request of their members. You can easily join up and pay for your membership via PayPal, a bank account, or a credit card. Become a member of the Audubon Minnesota chapter of the National Audubon Society by visiting this page and following the on-screen instructions.

Membership dues (monthly or yearly) are as follows: $15, $20, $25, $35, and $50

Saint Paul Audubon Society

The Saint Paul Audubon Society is a phenomenal organization with a rich and storied history. It was originally founded in 1945 with 12 members, and it was first called the St. Paul Bird club. By the time the year ended two months later, the group already had 98 members.

You’ll want to join now because they focus on birds, natural ecosystems, conservation, and protecting habitats for all wildlife. They believe this is a benefit to the biological diversity of the earth as well as all of humanity.

Even more important, you can join this organization and get involved as a volunteer, participate in educational opportunities and field trips and other events, and ultimately have a good time connecting with other like-minded people living in St. Paul and the surrounding area.

Contact Info:

Monthly Meeting Location (held on the second 30 Thursday of every month at 7 PM)

Fairview Community Center
1910 West County Rd. B
Roseville, MN 55113

Mailing Address
St. Paul Audubon Society
PO Box 7275
St. Paul, MN 55107

Past and Future Events:

  • Pelican Migration at Pigs Eye Lake – this event is taking place on October 16 from 9 AM to 11 AM. The leaders of this group are named Kiki Sonnen, who can be reached at 651-331-9560 or [email protected] and Chase Davies. This is a bird walk field trip, but you’re still going to be pretty far from the pelicans, so bring a scope if possible and binoculars if a scope isn’t available to you. Learn more about this upcoming event by visiting this page.
  • Sandhill Cranes at Crex Meadows SWA in Greensburg, Wisconsin – this field trip is being led by Louise Eidsmoe and Chase Davies and it takes place on October 19 from 4 PM to 8:15 PM. There are thousands of Sandhill Cranes congregating in the ponds and marshes of Crex Meadows. And now is your opportunity to view them up close and in person with a group of other like-minded individuals. These beautiful birds look stunning and make haunting sounds that will stay with you for a long time. Visit this page to get all of the details about this upcoming event.
  • Swans and Other Waterfowl in Brownsville, MN – this event is being held on November 13 from 2 PM to 5 PM. The group is being led by Chase and Ed Davies. To become a part of the group, you need to register ahead of time. Call Ed or Chase at 65124697542 register. Or you can visit the event page online here to see all of the specific details and other pertinent information about this exciting and fun filled birdwatching trip.

Membership Fees:

It’s never been easier to become a member of the National Audubon Society and St. Paul Audubon Society Chapter. The national and chapter membership costs $30 a year, which is a steal in my opinion because they provide so many activities, monthly meetings, bird walks, field trips, and so much more. Plus, you’ll receive a one-year subscription to Audubon Magazine and discounts when visiting Nature Centers and Sanctuaries run by the Audubon Society.

To quickly become a member, please visit this page on the St. Paul Audubon Society’s website and follow the on-screen instructions to sign up.

Birding In Minnesota Final Thought

Thanks for taking the time to read and learn about the top free and paid birding destinations in Minnesota, along with the top birdwatching clubs in the area. We hope you found this information useful and informative.

Before you go:

Do you know of any other important birding areas, clubs, or bird watching destinations that need to be added to our Minnesota resources? Feel free to send us a message and tell us about your resource so we can add it to this page. 

We’d like to be the best birdwatching resource in Minnesota and your help is appreciated!

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